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The decline of critical thinking

In Psyche, Janet Geipel and Boaz Keysar describe research that concluded that people are more prone to think intuitively when they listen to a problem, and more prone to think analytically when they read about a problem.

In my area of work, one of the major changes of recent years has been that group discussions of complex issues that would once have happened by email have now become meetings on Microsoft Teams. I’m often found complaining about the time inefficiency of this, and some of my colleagues complain about the relative lack of engagement and high probability of distraction.

But I hadn’t previously considered that the decisions taken might also be less analytical, which could be problematic in some circumstances. It’s one to ponder.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , .

Holy Jesus

The Holy Jesus Hospital in Newcastle is a Grade II* listed building, which started life as an Augustinian Friary in 1291. The hospital bit was built in 1682. These days, it’s a load of offices, so don’t go thinking you can have a poke round.

For my part, despite having lived in the North East for two decades, I’d never passed the building on foot until today. I’ve never made a special effort to see it, and it is well tucked away.

The tucking is due to the disastrous 1960s town planning decisions taken in Newcastle, which almost saw this historic building demolished. It was ultimately ‘saved’—but now has the Central Motorway thundering past it just a few metres away, and is cut off from the city by the multi-lane Swan House Roundabout. It can only be accessed by a series of underpasses. It became a local history museum shortly after being ‘saved’, but this closed in 1995.

It’s not somewhere it’s easy to just happen across… although I managed to do just that when wandering the area.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , .

I’ve been reading ‘Penance’ by Eliza Clark

I loved Eliza Clark’s first novel, Boy Parts, which was dark, violent, and very subversively funny. I really looked forward to getting stuck into this second novel, though I slightly feared that it might be a ‘difficult’ second novel. There was a danger that Clark might just try to repeat the singular tone, style, and content of her first novel, and not quite pull it off.

I needn’t have worried: Clark is clearly a much better writer than that.

Penance is a parody of a true-crime book. It is ostensibly written by Alec Carelli, a thoroughly unlikeable journalist whose obsequiousness drops from every page. He is manipulative and judgemental, and Clark relentless skewers him.

The crime in the book is the violent murder of a 16-year-old girl, committed by three of her school friends on the night of the Brexit referendum. Clark inhabits no end of different styles for this book, perfectly parodying true crime podcasters, commenters on internet forums, and discourse on Tumblr. She even writes a pitch-perfect Guardian interview as a postscript.

Granta recently named Clark as one of the best novelists under 40. I think she’s one of the best novelists, full stop, and this book only goes to prove that.

Some quotations:

Vance Diamond, for the uninitiated, was a nightclub owner, radio and television presenter and a philanthropist. He was also a serial sex offender – possibly one of the worst in British history if one could quantify sex offences on a scorecard the way we might ‘score’ a serial killer.

The Cherry Creek massacre was a pretty obscure case—it still kind of is outside of true-crime circles, honestly. Another American school shooting—it feels like there’s one every five minutes so it’s like who cares, big deal, even the most obsessed people can barely keep up with them.

Violet liked battered things. Nothing was so delicate and precious as that which had already begun to fall to pieces. She wanted to preserve its last gasp of colour and beauty.

I would put up a big front online, but I spent a lot of time alone in my room, feeling really shitty about myself.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .

I’ve streamed Yaël Farber’s ‘Salomé’

Not so long ago, I watched the 1950 film version of Sunset Boulevard for the first time. The plot includes Norma Desmond writing the script for a new film about Salome, the biblical character who requested the beheading of John the Baptist. This became the subject of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play.

I know nothing about Salome, but I do know something about throwing myself into things, so I decided to stream Yaël Farber’s 2017 play based on her story. Farber took the Wilde play and added some ancient Arabic and Hebraic and came up with… Salomé.

This is a one-act play lasting about an hour and a half. It felt like the whole thing was shouted, except for the occasional bit which was screamed. I think this might be an attempt at ‘urgency’ or high emotion, but it is exhausting. I also had no clue what was going on. It would be traditional in a post like this to summarise the plot, but the experience of seeing the show hasn’t adequately equipped me to do that.

It was, however, far from a complete disaster. The lighting and staging were incredible. Tuning out the unintelligible script, this was an absolute treat for the eyes, a bare-bones stage utterly transformed from moment to moment. There were numerous curtains, cascading sand, splashy-watery bits, a giant ladder, and gorgeously atmospheric lighting.

There were revolves which rarely stood still, even when their revolutions seemed to do more to distract than enhance. There are some stunningly camp bits of self-conscious tableau: they re-create Da Vinci’s Last Supper repeatedly, and even revolve that—I mean, who hasn’t wanted to see a representation of the last supper on a lazy Susan? It’s among the most exuberant staging I’ve ever seen, especially for only having a handful of bits of set.

There’s also a brilliantly sung soundtrack accompanying the whole thing.

I suspect there is a lot to like in this, and that—to be honest —most of it sailed above my head. If you’ve more idea of the background, you’ll probably get far more out of this than I did.

Salomé is available to stream on National Theatre at Home until at least December.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Theatre, , .

The juice was neither cold nor hot. It caused no pain.

I can’t recall having previously read Colm Tóibín’s 2019 moving account of his testicular cancer. You can also listen to him reading the piece at that link.

The whole essay is quite wonderful, and it feels a bit wrong to pick out specific bits, but on my most recent reading, I was particularly struck by this passage:

In the end I phoned the hospital. The nurse could not have been kinder, but since there was no pain, no precise problem, she did not seem to know what to say. Feeling bad was part of chemo, so the fact that I felt bad was not news. Eventually, I found that I couldn’t explain what I felt and we ended the conversation. A few minutes later, she called back and said I should come over to the hospital and pack some things with a view to staying for a few days.

It made me think firstly about the difficulty of articulation. As humans, how many times have we all thought “there’s just something not quite right”—but been unable to describe, even to ourselves, exactly what is wrong?

And secondly, it took me right to the mind of the nurse. As a doctor, it transported me to all those times when my gut feeling has said something’s wrong, and after a bit of soul-searching, I’ve made a bold decision in response.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , .

11 years? Deer god!

In 2012, I blogged about Benwell Roman Temple.

This is the world’s only temple to Antenociticus (also called Anociticus for short), which must mean he’s a local Geordie god, I suppose, alongside the likes of Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer.

Antenociticus’s head—or, at least, the head of his statue—was found here in 1862, and is now in the Great North Museum. Apparently, his hair style suggests either a connection to the Greek gods or a Celtic deer god.

Eleven years is a long time to wait for a pay-off, but please meet Antenociticus:

I’m not sure his hair is all that different to how mine looks if I let it grow out, and—weirdly—no-one has ever mistaken me for a Greek god. Nor a deer, for that matter.

For the avoidance of doubt, Shaun the Sheep did not feature in Roman Britain, but is here as part of a disastrous charity art trail. Perhaps upstaging the local god unleashed a curse.

In the years since I wrote the original post, another carved head of Antenociticus has been found down the road at Bishop Auckland, probably from a statue in a bath house. Oh, and he’s been recreated in Lego.

I’ve also realised that Antenociticus previously lived at the (now demolished) Newcastle University Museum of Antiquities, which I visited a few times between lectures as a medical student. I recently very much enjoyed reading this account of the museum’s outreach work, written by Lindsay Allason-Jones just as the museum closed its doors.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , .

I’ve been reading ‘How to Keep House While Drowning’ by KC Davis

I read this short book in an afternoon, as a sort of escapism. It had been recommended somewhere—I can’t remember where—as a gentle alternative to Marie Kondo’s books. I love a bit of Marie Kondo, but the idea of a gentle alternative felt comforting.

At heart, this is a book for people who are, for whatever reason, struggling in life and finding the tasks of looking after themselves and their home to be overwhelming. I am fortunate not to be in that position, but I nevertheless enjoyed the book.

Alongside the practical advice, Davis reflects on her own challenges in life, and passionately makes the point that household maintenance is not a moral issue. Her advice isn’t always practically generalisable—this is firmly disposable income, large house stuff—but I think Davis is really trying to suggest a mindset rather than particular cleaning techniques.

I was struck that Davis doesn’t seem to acknowledge the impact of social media on her own mental health, despite several mentions of TikTok comments leading her down dark paths. This seemed a strange omission given the themes explored in the book. It was only after reading the book that I understood that the book is a spin-off from her TikTok fame, and so perhaps her social media experiences are fairly singular.

I was interested to read this, and it was short, and it gave me something of a different perspective on the topics it explored—but I’m uncertain if I’ll remember it a year hence.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .

How Daft Punk got lucky

I’ve mentioned a number of times on this blog, though always in passing, that I enjoy Daft Punk’s music. I was saddened to learn of their split in February 2021.

Last week, Le Monde published a fanatic five-part series of long reads by Bruno Lesprit. Under the title ‘how Daft Punk got lucky’, the series went into far more detail on the duo than I’ve ever read before. I enjoyed it enormously.

The articles aren’t very well linked on the English version of the Le Monde site, so here the five articles in orderfor convenience:

There were two particularly stand-out takeaways from this series.

Firstly, Daft Punk have released a new, extended, tenth anniversary edition of Random Access Memories—my favourite of their albums—and the news had completely passed me by. Guess what I’ve been streaming while I’ve been writing this?

Secondly, this was a thing that happened in this crazy world of ours, and I’d forgotten all about it:

This post was filed under: Music, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

I’ve visited ‘Confluence’

What happens when you take three artists who are used to working in ceramics and give them a ten-day residency at the National Glass Centre? They try to explore ideas in a new material, resulting in an exhibition that—for me, at least—didn’t really work.

The three artists involved were Bouke de Vries, Andrea Walsh and Andrew Livingstone.

Andrea Walsh experimented with the fluidity of glass and ceramic, seeing how each could be made to fold or flex, almost like fabric. Her pieces were mostly tiny and intricate. They felt a bit like the artists’ artist’s response to the challenge, in that they explored the material, but didn’t offer an awful lot to a casual observer like me. I don’t really know how fluid ceramics can be, so a comparison with glass was a bit lost on me.

Bouke de Vries’s work seemed to mostly involve putting ceramic pots in glass boxes, marked with words like ‘fragile’ and ‘handle with care’. I appreciated the whimsy of doing that in glass, but I didn’t get much beyond that. According to the labels, the artist was intending to draw some connection with Vermeer’s Milkmaid, which appeared as four tapestries, but I didn’t really understand how the whole thing was supposed to fit together.

Andrew Livingstone exhibited a bowl of glass emoji-like fruit which I enjoyed, and which was displayed alongside the artist’s earlier painting which featured the fruit. I thought this was an amusing commentary on his style and the artistic process, upending the usual way in which still life art works. Until I read the label, I didn’t realise that there was another sexual layer of meaning in that the fruits are all used in ‘sexting’ and also reference ‘fruit’ as a homophobic slur.

Livingstone also exhibited a glass model of a house in its own section of the gallery, surrounded on the floor by what3words grid references. I had no idea what this was all about: according to the label, it aimed to “explore ceramic and glass as queer politically charged materials.” I didn’t get it, not least as there wasn’t even any ceramic in the piece, as far as I could make out.

All things considered, I suspect this exhibition would be of more interest to those with some background knowledge or experience of working artistically with ceramic or glass than it was to me.

Confluence continues at the National Glass Centre until 10 September.

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, , , , , .

A pernicious show of powerlessness

Le Monde had a great editorial on Friday about the UK government’s attitude to asylum seekers. Its conclusion:

In the UK, as in other countries such as France, debates on immigration are in urgent need of candor, especially in light of labor shortages. The UK, far from being “overrun,” as Braverman claims, registers far fewer asylum seekers than France or Germany. London suffers from a lack of efficiency in processing applications, 166,000 of which are pending. Brexit has led the British to deprive themselves of European coordination tools, and to a policy that favors migrants from distant countries over Europeans.

As for the real ways of managing migration, they mainly involve improving European cooperation policies and our relations with the countries of origin. Unless they have the courage to speak the truth, the leaders of developed countries risk continuing to put on, like Sunak, a pernicious show of powerlessness.

I find it hard to disagree with a word of that. The government’s profound lack of seriousness is hard to fathom at the best of times, but becomes uniquely distressing when applied to the treatment of vulnerable people literally fleeing for their lives.

It’s also hard to imagine any of the editorials of the British press focusing on the substantive issue, as Le Monde has done, if the ‘fuck off to France’ shoe had been on the French foot.

This post was filed under: Politics, Post-a-day 2023, .

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